This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.
When I suggested doing a show about “Jews and the Olympics” for Jewish Book Week, I recognised the suspicious look in the organiser’s eyes. It was a look that said: Jews and the Olympics? That’s going to be a short show. And you can see what they mean: there’d be Mark Spitz, the Jewish one from “Chariots of Fire” (and I still can’t believe it wasn’t even him who kicked up a fuss about not running on the sabbath), the tragic massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and that’d be it. End of show. It’s not as if we Jews have ever had that much to cheer about at the Olympics. For us, they’ve been more Oy-limpics than Olympics. But then, if you believe the stereotype, sporting achievement has never been something we’ve valued. As God said to Abraham in the Bible (Genesis 15, 5) : “Look up into the sky at the countless stars. So shalt thy descendants be, though they shall be no good at DIY or horse-riding and sport shall be a mystery unto them. Apart from some boxers in the 1920s”.
That’s not to say that the Olympics don’t have a special place in Jewish history. After all, every year we celebrate the miracle of the Olympic torch that only had enough oil to stay alight for a day but actually lasted for eight. Nes godol hoyo shom – “a great miracle happened there”, where “there” equals Athens. As for me, I’ve always been a fan of the Olympics. I have a very early memory of being traumatised to tears when David Hemery had to settle for bronze in the 400 metres hurdles behind Uganda’s John Aki-Bua and Ralph Mann from the States. I didn’t have to google those names because I can still remember throwing myself to the kitchen floor and howling as I wittily derided Hemery’s conquerors as John Aki-Poo-Poo and Ralph Ape-Mann. I was 19 at the time. – I jest of course, I was still a little boy, but it was clear that a great career in comedy lay ahead of me.
There was even a brief moment when I dreamt of becoming an Olympian myself. Having shown a very unjewish flair for Judo (Jewdo?), there was some talk of me aiming for the Los Angeles Olympics. But what’s a nice Jewish boy doing attempting a harai goshi (“sweeping hip throw”), let alone a ude hishigi juji gatame (“arm-crushing cross hold”)? You don’t get any of those moves in accountancy. It would have meant sacrificing a more academic path for a sporting one and, as any Jewish mother will tell you, even “my son, the gold medallist” will always be trumped by “my son, the doctor”. Though possibly not by “my son, the comedian (have you heard his John Aki Poo-poo routine?)”.
But are the stereotypes of the non-sporty Jew actually true? The Olympics allow us to test this scientifically. Look at the medals table for Beijing and you’ll see that Israel finished in lowly 80th place with a single bronze, level with Mauritius, Togo and Afghanistan (what sort of sporting infrastructure did they have in place in 2008?). Not so good, you might say. However – and I don’t mean to open a whole Israel vs The Diaspora can of kosher worms – if you look at the medals won by Jews overall we actually finished with 5 golds, 7 silvers and 4 bronze, or bronzes, whatever the plural of “bronze” is. That would put us in 16th place, ahead of Romania, Ethiopia, Canada, etc. Yes: Celine Dion! Bryan Adams! Various other people we think are American but are actually Canadian! Your guys took one hell of a beating!
So maybe we’re not so bad at sport after all, although the winter Olympics stats make interesting reading. If you imagine two circles 17 miles apart, one marked “Jews” and one marked “Winter Olympic medalists” then you have a pretty accurate Venn diagram of our contribution to those games. We did win a pair’s figure skating gold in 1980 through Russia’s Gennadi Karponosov and Natalya Linichuk, but sadly only Gennadi was Jewish and as figure skating goes through the mother, it doesn’t count.
Which brings us to 2012 and the Olympics in London. I must admit I’m torn about this. On the one hand there’s my intense excitement as an Olympicophile at the games actually taking place 20 minutes from where I live. It is, as everyone’s saying, a once-in-a-lifetime experience – unless you were born before 1948 in which case it’s twice-in-a-lifetime. And if you’re over 104 and witnessed the 1908 London games then, boy, you must be bored of them by now. But still, how thrilling, how exciting it’ll be there to witness first-hand people going to the event who actually got tickets because they work for one of the sponsors. To actually be there when world record after world record is broken. There’s even talk that they might smash the magic two-hour barrier for the time it takes to drive from Piccadilly to Green Park. I’ve been waiting to be at the Olympics all my life and now it’s finally here! But then on the other hand, there’s the possibility of renting my house out for two weeks at four times its mortgage to some gullible Americans who actually think our mascots “rock”. That’s got to be just as tempting.
In the end I’ll probably stay and witness Lord Coe’s extravaganza (rumours that Steve Ovett is organising a £10bn rival London Olympics for this summer are as yet unconfirmed but I wouldn’t put it past him. He just can’t let it lie). Personally, I’d love to see a few more events that Jews like myself and my family can excel at, just to up that Jewish medal count, events like synchronised kvetching, the 10 kilometre guilt trip or, for the orthodox, tennis mixed doubles with a mechitza, a dividing wall, to keep the men and women separate. In the meantime we’ll have to make do with Greco-Roman wrestling and the least Jewish activity on the planet, three-day eventing. And so, to paraphrase Jewish New Year cards the world over, may I be the first to wish you a very happy and prosperous Olympics and well over the fast(est man in the world contest).
With thanks for the pics to chigwiri.com